Hand Sewing

Herringbone stretch stitch
Herringbone stretch stitch (photo by Chuleenan Svetvilas)

Over the past few months I’ve been hand sewing, not machine sewing, which has a very different feel. When I’m sewing on a machine, I want to have blocks of time to work. I want an uninterrupted five or six hours minimum to sew, iron, snip, etc.

But when you sew with a needle and thread in hand, you have more flexibility. It’s a lot slower than a sewing machine but you can be interrupted and it’s not a big deal. You can work on your hand sewing for 20 or 30 minutes and still feel as if  you got something done. And it’s very portable, you can just stuff it in a bag along with your needle and thread and work on it wherever you have decent light.

I’ve been doing some embroidery and though I’ve been working on off and on since October, I can see my progress. So far, I’ve written two posts on my embroidered wrap, which was inspired by the one in the book  Alabama Studio Sewing + Design by Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin (my review). You can read about my embroidering experiences in this post “Getting Started on My Alabama Fur Wrap” and “The Embroidered Wrap.”

I’ve been making jersey garments from the book. If I were sewing this fabric on my sewing machine, I’d use a zig zag stitch or I’d use the built-in stretch stitch, which is a bit bulky and tedious because it goes over every stitch three times.

But as I discovered from Alabama Studio, there are many different hand stitchesincluding stretch stitches that you can use on jersey fabric and elastic. I had no idea.

I learned how to hand sew a herringbone stitch to attach the foldover elastic to the waistband of a skirt I made from the book. It’s a rather time-consuming stitch to so because there are sooooo many stitches to sew but I did it!

The cretan stitch is much faster to do because the individual stitches are further apart. I think I’ll use that stitch the next time I hand sew elastic!

Getting Started on My “Alabama Fur” Wrap

Photo of Alabama “fur” from Alabama Studio Sewing + Design

When I got my copy of Natalie Chanin’s Alabama Studio Sewing + Design, which I reviewed in September, I was all fired up to make a wrap embroidered with spirals, or what designer Natalie Chanin calls “Alabama fur.”

The “fur” is created by leaving one-inch tails of embroidery floss on the right side of your fabric. You knot the thread and leave a tail at the beginning and end of each spiral. It’s an amazing look, isn’t it? This is a photo from the book.

The Fabric Outlet in San Francisco was having a 40 percent off sale that week so I was determined to find some jersey fabric and embroidery thread and get going. All of the clothes in the book are made from organic cotton jersey.

I really haven’t made very many things using jersey fabric so I as I browsed, I just kept in mind what I’d read about knits: jersey curls up on the ends, interlock and ribbed knit stays flat.

I found some black jersey and it seemed like it was cotton (or maybe it was a blend). But hey, it was $9.99/yard and it was on sale (40 percent off!). (Yes, I am a sucker for a fabric sale.) It had a nice medium weight so I bought a few yards.

Then I hunted for embroidery floss and got several skeins of black, very light grey (DMC 3024), and dark grey (DMC ultra dark beaver grey). My spirals could be stitched using those three colors.

Next I had to enlarge by 342 percent, the spiral stencil pictured in the book. I did a test page on 11 “x 17″ paper but that only got one small part of the stencil on the page. So I went to a copy place in San Francisco that did large-scale enlargements. The finished printout was poster-size 24″ x 36”. Whoa – I didn’t know it was going to be that big. It cost about $11 for the enlargement.

Now I had all my materials and was ready to get underway. I used freezer paper to create the pattern and cut out two pieces of fabric 21″ x 30 inches. The books says if you are going to add embellishment, to use a double layer of fabric.

But how was I supposed to get that spiral stencil on the fabric?

There was no way I was going to cut out the spirals with an exacto black and then trace them on the fabric. I could see that that could take f-o-r-e-v-e-r.  So should I use tracing paper? I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do and the book didn’t really address this as it referred to all the designs in the book as stencils, which mean cut them out. Ha.

I posted a photo of the stencil on Instagram and Twitter and said: “OK I enlarged the @AlabamaChanin spiral design. Now how shd I transfer it to #fabric?”

Lo and behold! I got an answer from Alabama Chanin via Instagram! “We use textile paint but you can also use a marker or a pencil and trace them.” I was thrilled to get a response. (Yay for social media!)

However, I couldn’t see myself tracing all those spirals. I’m impatient and that just seemed really tedious. So I put the fabric on top of the photocopy of the spirals and started drawing the spirals in marking pencil on my fabric. But before I began doing that, I had to figure out what was the so-called “right side” of the jersey fabric.

The book had close-up photos illustrating what the wrong and right side looked like but I couldn’t really tell from my fabric because it was a rather tightly woven jersey and there really didn’t seem to be much of a difference so I just picked a side and began. Also it really hot that week because we were in the midst of an unseasonable fall heat wave and I didn’t have any bright (hot) lights on. Plus I just wanted to get started. (Did I mention I’m impatient?)

I was essentially freehand drawing – looking at the spirals and trying to draw them as they appeared on the photocopy. I drew spirals on one corner and then I began embroidering using two strands of embroidery floss doubled, which meant that each stitch would have four strands.

This is a backstitch endeavor, per the book. (If you don’t know what a backstitch is, here’s a nice explanation “How-to: Back Stitch” from Sublime Stiching.)

I knew it was going to be slow going but I didn’t realize how slow until I began making the stitches. After a couple hours, I hadn’t finished very many spirals. I stitched for a few hours every evening for three days straight. But I quickly realized after I made one black spiral, that black wasn’t going to work because it completely disappeared against the black knit fabric. Duh.

I don’t know why I thought black would work. I thought I would at least see a texture but it’s like those spirals aren’t even there (see spirals circled in red). Darn it!

So I stuck with the greys. By the second day, I was more efficient at making the spirals and I had my own assembly line going – I threaded six needles so I didn’t have to keep stopping to separate the strands and thread the needle. I just used the grey, threading needles with two strands of dark grey, two strands of very light grey and then one strand each of dark and very light grey. I tried a strand of black and a strand of grey but the black still disappeared so I just stopped using black altogether.

Then I decided I needed another color, maybe a grey that was in between the dark grey and black. So I went to Lacis in Berkeley, which carries many embroidery flosses, including every single DMC color available. I looked at all the colors but didn’t see a really dark grey.

Then helpful store clerk pointed out DMC 399, very dark pewter grey (right). It’s a grey with more blue in it. It still wasn’t as dark as I would have liked but it was subtly different from the other dark grey.

My Alabama fur wrap is underway! When I’m further along, I’ll write another post about it.

Three days of embroidering

Book Review: ‘Alabama Studio Sewing + Design’ by Natalie Chanin

I recently checked out this great book on hand sewing from the public library: Alabama Studio Sewing + Design: A Guide to Hand-Sewing an Alabama Chanin Wardrobe by Natalie Chanin. It focuses on creating a hand-sewn wardrobe – yes, everything from bolero jackets and wraps to dresses and skirts of varying lengths – from cotton jersey fabric. The various pieces can be layered for a striking appearance or worn with a pair of jeans for a more casual look.

These are all designs from Alabama Chanin, where a hand-sewn and hand-embroidered tank top retails for more than $1,000. But you can make your own versions with this book!

The photos of the models wearing the clothes in this book are gorgeous. And there are nice illustrations of the various stretch stitches you can use when you are hand sewing.

A couple pages from ‘Alabama Studio Sewing + Design’

The author recommends using button craft thread for hand sewing because it’s one of the strongest threads. It’s made “with a polyester core surrounded by vary finely spun cotton yarn,” writes Chanin.

I was so enamored of the clothes in this library book that I went ahead and ordered it from Amazon (and paid sales tax for the first time on an Amazon-purchased book – yes, California’s online sales tax law went into effect last weekend). I can’t cut into the patterns that come with a library book because other people will be checking it out. So I just had to buy it.

Featured in the book & available to buy on Alabama Chanin’s website

What makes the clothes unique is the appliqué work, beading, stencils, and embroidering. The stencils and various designs for embroidering and beading are all provided in the book along with patterns for the various clothes. You can also purchase the stencils from Alabama Chanin’s store. Cutting out the stencils yourself is certainly time-consuming so you may want to spring for a stencil if you intend to reuse it or just want to spare yourself the tediousness of cutting out the designs.

I was so inspired that when I saw that the Fabric Outlet in San Francisco was having a sale this week (everything 40 percent off!), I went shopping for some black cotton jersey. I also picked up several spools of button thread. I’m not sure if I’m going to hand sew the entire thing – my zigzag stitch on my sewing machine may be employed for this endeavor. But I’m certainly going to give it serious consideration.

I’ll be sure to post about what I make from this book. Though it may take a l-o-o-o-ng time because of the hand sewing!

Chuleenan Svetvilas